Sunny side up

Published in The Observer (February 23rd 2014)

The Upside of Down by Charles Kenny (Basic Books)

During the last United States presidential election, the then-rising Republican star Chris Christie delivered a typically impassioned speech to his party’s national convention. Seizing his moment in the spotlight, he proclaimed that he did not want his children and grandchildren to have to read in history books what it was like to live in an American Century. “I want them to live in a Second American Century,” he said.

But conventional wisdom states the game is up for the US and its western allies that together dominated the globe over the last century. They have had their time; now they are slipping into the sunset as the likes of China, India and Brazil roar past them into global prominence. Most particularly, China’s return to the top spot as the world’s greatest power is seen as leading to consequent decay and decline in the increasingly impotent west.

Charles Kenny, an irrepressibly optimistic and refreshingly free-thinking British economist, sees the shape of this emerging world rather differently. For a start, he thinks the US should learn from the post-imperial British experience by adopting a more collegiate approach to global affairs while discovering new strengths. More fundamentally, he argues that just because one nation is winning does not mean another must lose; instead, he shows convincingly how the benefits of success spread far beyond borders.

The Upside of Down is clearly aimed at an American audience, trying to reassure a fretful nation in danger of retreating back into isolationism. Their concerns are understandable. Some experts say China has already overtaken the US on certain measures of economic size; regardless, by the end of the next decade the Asian superpower is expected to account for twice as much of the global economy as its wilting rival. And the speed of this change is simply incredible. GM sold one car in China for every 10 it sold in the US in 2004; just five years later, the ratio was approaching one-to-one.

Kenny, who is based at a Washington think tank, reminds readers that being the wealthiest place on Earth has not made the US the happiest or healthiest nation; for instance, it comes only 47th in the rankings of infant survival and has lower life expectancy than many other rich countries. Yet his statistic-laden polemic is ultimately a glorious hymn to the transformative powers of globalisation, showing the beneficial impact for everyone as countries become richer, healthier and smarter. Even in some of the most wrecked countries of the world such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, we can clearly see education improving and infant mortality declining.

In many ways this short, rather clumsily titled book could be viewed as the second part of Getting Better, his highly influential previous work that punctured the doom and gloom surrounding global development and was beloved by Bill Gates. The author shows how advances in one place’s wealth and wellbeing are more likely to enhance than hamper progress elsewhere, leading to business innovations, medical breakthroughs, new technologies and greater wealth. He says correctly that this shows the folly of adopting a fortress mentality, whether preventing the free flow of capital, goods or people.

Even on purely mercantile grounds pulling up the portcullis makes no sense, given the opportunities that abound in this rapidly changing world. Three decades ago, Chinese consumption of beer was minimal; today, the country consumes more than 40bn litres. Its market for luxury goods is growing more than one third each year, while it is sending soaring numbers of students abroad to study and opening up its health services to foreign firms. Worldwide, spending on medicine is nearly doubling in a decade.

Although it feels something of a byway, there is also a fine demolition of the arguments against open borders – not least since the workforce in the west will shrink by some 100m people at a time of ageing populations. This failure to allow more migrants into the west is delaying economic recovery and costing jobs, while the immigration system “looks like it was designed by a failing-grade student of Soviet planning”. Among his solutions is the suggestion of selling citizenship, with loans for migrants from low-income countries.

There are, of course, warnings that the world cannot sustain this rising population or growing wealth. Kenny uses his battering ram of facts and figures to put the counter view, showing how predictions of crises are constantly thwarted by new technologies and discoveries. Copper reserves, for instance, in 2010 were more than double the 1970 estimates, while cereal yields rose at more than twice the rate of population growth in the developing world in the first decade of this century. He also highlights China’s leading role in renewable energy. But for all his positivity, he fails to demolish totally concerns over climate change and water shortages, while placing too much faith in international institutions.

He is also too sanguine about state-led misuse of Chinese technologies, demanding less mistrust of its leading firms in this field. But these are minor quibbles in a timely counter to the relativist global race narrative. As he says, one minute we are told the developing world is stealing jobs and overtaking our economies with unfair competition, the next that it is a starving morass left helpless without our aid or intervention. Once again, Kenny offers a powerful antidote to the poisonous pessimism that prevails in too many places.

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